When I was in college, I chose a major that I knew nothing about, and spent four years studying Economics. At this point in my life it would probably not be too far off the mark to say that I still (or again) know nothing about Economics, but one of the things that did fascinate me about economic policy was the difficulty of foreseeing the effect of policy on human behavior, and vice versa.
So it was that, earlier today, I was enticed to click on an article about “the cobra effect.” The cobra effect is an illustration of how unintended consequences can completely undo the good intentions or the best-laid plans of a law or an economic policy.
The cobra effect refers to a situation in Delhi in the days when India was under British rule as a colony. The infestation of cobras at that time was so great that the powers that be passed a law that put a bounty on cobras, paying the people to kill them. This source of income was enticing, of course, and people responded. Very soon the supply of cobras dwindled—along with the income produced by killing them. Human rationale took over, and people began breeding cobras in order to kill them and continue to reap the benefits. When the government responded by rescinding the law, people lost the incentive to kill the cobras they had bred and—in the end—the cobra problem was greater after the law was rescinded than it had been when it was enacted.
Economic policy and considerations aside, I began thinking that unintended consequences can result from a variety of situations, as I have lately witnessed and faced up to in my own life. In this young month of December, this season of Advent, this time of rejoicing and goodwill that we so recently have entered, there are plenty of opportunities for unintended consequences.
Like many of the teachers, pastors, Church workers, and others in our family and friend groups, this is a time of year when we expect to give of ourselves, becoming involved in all sorts of programs, festivities, worship services, social events, charitable events, concerts—‘tis the season. And these events often fight for space on the calendar or schedule with all the routine and daily tasks and activities that seem to keep us plenty busy to start with.
So with the very best of intentions we wade in, often with a feeling that we are following the Spirit’s leading and everything about our involvement is right and good. There are so many opportunities to serve, to do something helpful and to be part of the joy of sharing the good news of our Savior, of celebrating his coming.
Certainly nobody signs up to “do good” with the intention of ending up feeling cranky, put-upon and unappreciated, but that is all too often the case. It’s jaw-dropping sometimes how quickly my good intentions get derailed, often by something that seems simple and meaningless. Suddenly willingness, eagerness and joy are replaced by the unintended consequences of fatigue, burn out, and ill will.
In my feeble attempts to get back the joy, I often find myself “raising more cobras,” doing more things, or different things, and finding my best efforts producing only additional unintended consequences. “OK,” I think (for example), “Let’s at least get the Christmas tree up and decorated.” And there it stands—the empty, unfluffed and unlit artificial tree has been hanging out in our living room for a couple of days, now, taunting me. The bin of lights awaits. The decorations cool their heels. My husband usually does the lights, and I follow with the decorations, but “he is out of town and I don’t have time anyway,” I think resentfully to myself.
I don’t have easy answers for the unintended negative consequences that seem to pile on when I believe I am acting with such good intentions. But I do know that God invites me to come to him, setting aside my frustrations and enjoying time in his presence. Here is an excerpt from an evening prayer I read a day ago—and even shared with a friend, it spoke so directly to some of my typical Advent feelings:
“And in my heart’s most secret chamber Thou art now waiting to meet and speak with me, freely offering me Thy fellowship in spite of all my sinning. Let me now avail myself of this open road to peace of mind. Let me approach Thy presence humbly and reverently. Let me carry with me the spirit of my Lord and Master Jesus Christ. Let me leave behind me all fretfulness, all unworthy desires, all thoughts of malice towards my fellow men, all hesitancy in surrendering my will to Thine.
In Thy will, O Lord, is my peace. In they love is my rest. In thy service is my joy. Thou art all my heart’s desire….”
For all of my regret and disappointment over the unintended consequences of my earnest desire to do good and helpful things, as I sit in quiet fellowship with my Lord I cannot help but ponder what seem like unintended consequences of Jesus’ life on this earth. From a human standpoint, it is hard to look at all the good he did—his perfect life, his ministry, his acts of healing and mercy—and not be aghast at the way he was received by the leaders of the time, who were so intent on killing him. Jesus was not filled with resentment over the way he was treated, but they were certainly resentful of Him and His following. His death, from a human standpoint, looks surely like an unintended consequence of a life lived for others.
But Jesus came to earth not to simply live a life for others but to give His life for all. He knew full well that He would die, paying the price for our sins. And then he rose victorious over death and over all of Satan’s successes in bringing about unintended consequences from our best intentions. Our forgiveness and our right and close relationship with God, who freely offers us His fellowship in spite of all our sinning, is the fully intended consequence of Jesus’ advent.